Chirac ally may challenge Sarkozy for presidency

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The French Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, hinted yesterday that she might run as an independent candidate in next year's presidential election - potentially damaging the chances of her colleague, Nicolas Sarkozy.

After weeks of hesitation, Mme Alliot-Marie, 60, said she would not run against M. Sarkozy in the official "primary" of the governing party next month. She may, however, launch an independent campaign, which would take centre-right votes from M. Sarkozy in the first round of the elections on 22 April.

The Interior Minister, M. Sarkozy, 51, has long looked certain to win the nomination of the main centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). He will now be the only candidate when the 300,000 party members vote on 14 January.

Mme Alliot-Marie, known as MAM, said in an interview with the newspaper Sud-Ouest there was "no place" for her in the UMP primary. She would, however, consult "a number of people" and would say whether or not she planned to run as an independent before the party votes on 14 January.

Her announcement caused confusion and anger in the UMP yesterday. It was widely believed the "people" Mme Alliot-Marie planned to consult consisted of President Jacques Chirac and his close entourage.

President Chirac, 74, has not yet announced whether or not he plans to run for a third term. Although his age and low opinion poll ratings make his chances of success negligible, he is said to be furious that M. Sarkozy, as UMP leader, has organised a party vote before he, as sitting head of state, has made his intentions clear.

There is a chance M. Chirac might mount an independent campaign. If Mme Alliot-Marie does so, she will be seen as a stalking horse for the President, seeking to damage M. Sarkozy's chances and create an anti-Sarkozy movement on the centre-right.

An independent campaign - whether by MAM or M. Chirac - could split the mainstream right vote and allow the veteran far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen into the second round next spring. At the very least, it would cause a deep division in the governing party and bolster the chances of the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal.